Colorado Parks and Wildlife officials are confident that Canada lynx in the state will not die out even if the Trump administration removes them from the endangered-species list.
The move by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service toward delisting the species follows a report issued in the waning days of the Obama administration expressing confidence that the lynx would survive through 2050, but calling it "very unlikely" the species would survive until 2100.
"Our efforts to recover the lynx population in Colorado has been really strong," said Eric Odell, manager of the state's lynx program. "Our population in Colorado is self-sustaining and naturally reproducing. We are confident that the population we have is stable."
The story of lynx recovery in Colorado began in 1999, when state wildlife officials released cats captured in Canada and Alaska into remote portions of the San Juan Mountains. A year later, the cousin of the bobcat was listed as threatened as logging, motorized vehicles and development invaded their habitat at a time when there were no federal regulations protecting them. In addition, the animals were being trapped for their fur.
Within a seven-year period, 218 cats were introduced to the area. The cats established breeding populations in the San Juans and expanded their range into Summit County and other parts of Colorado's high country.
In 2010, the state wildlife agency declared the lynx reintroduction a success. Today, they estimate that between 150 and 200 of the tufted-ear cats live in Colorado's backcountry.
Odell added that the efforts also included a review of the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management's regulatory mechanisms regarding the lynx. The protective mechanisms introduced during the review will stay in place even if the species is delisted, ensuring the longevity of healthy lynx populations, Odell said.
Environmental groups did not share Odell's confidence and decried the administration for reversing the Obama-era assessment for "political" reasons. Western Environmental Law Center and WildEarth Guardians representatives said in a statement that stripping protections for the lynx would be "extremely risky" for the species' survival, particularly in the face of climate change and development.
"This is a political decision - pure and simple. This administration is throwing science out the window," said Matthew Bishop, an attorney with the Western Environmental Law Center. "The best science tells us that lynx are worse off than they were when originally listed in 2000.
"We're seeing lower numbers, more range contraction, and now understand the significant threats posed by climate change. This, however, was all papered-over by the administration just in time to shirk its legal obligation to issue a lynx recovery plan on Jan. 15."
Odell and the federal wildlife agency's report said they do not foresee climate change impacting lynx populations.
The report did note that changes in snowpack as a result of climate change could adversely affect lynx's resilience. As global temperatures increase, snowpack and structure is expected to thin, which could open lynx habitat to other predators and competitors that normally would have difficulty traveling and hunting efficiently in deep snow.
Delisting is not a done deal. Before the final decision is made, the agency would first have to publish a proposed rule in the Federal Register, receive public comments, review and analyze those comments and conduct a peer review.